City of Triumph
Written by Tim Bancroft and originally published as a serial, City of Exile takes place following the chaos that engulfed the Chryseis system and prior to the events in The Dronescourge Returns.
Having survived the events that took place in the Chryseis system, Prince Batu Delhren and Commander Baray return to their Exile. Forced to repair damage to their ship, the Shamasai Dust, they take refuge in one of the few systems in which no one will find them – Shamasai, itself. The system appears abandoned except for a ruined and lifeless Ghar sentry hulk at the system gate, so they hide in an asteroid belt and unpack some gifts from Vard Ordaichen: heavy-duty, industrial replicator machines. Here, they begin systematic repairs and upgrades, confident they are unlikely to be found…
The giant starship emerged from the system gate into its newly assigned base of operations, a star-system humans knew as Shamasai. In the command couch, Shaltok suppressed a shiver of fear, though the environment controls on his ship were supposedly optimised for Ghar. It was sometimes difficult to maintain the environmental balance: the ship had only recently been a hulk, Transient Observation Report 563, now renamed City of Triumph over Humanity. It also had far too few crew – perhaps five thousand in all. Which is, no doubt, whilst I’ve been reassigned to this lethal system. Still, I need only stay away from the planet.
On the external displays, a Ghar ship drifted to one side, apparently lifeless.
“Captain, the Guardian class sentinel is not responding to hails.”
“Magnify,” snapped Shaltok. On the central screen the image of the ship expanded. It was covered in dust-like particles. It is contaminated with the Shamasai dust! “Destroy it. Couple disruptor bombs to a quantum gravity core – have it implode.”
“Sir? Confirm destruction?”
“It’s covered in the dust-plague from the primary planet. Destroy it, I said!”
“Very well, Captain.”
Shaltok watched as the weapons teams targeted their Ghar launchers on the sentinel. At least our own weapons have their own controls. Which was more than could be said for the hulk’s own defence systems. On advice from his trio of Fartok’s Outcast technicians, the Ghar engineers had done wonders retrofitting Ghar weaponry onto the skin of the City of Triumph. Unused or damaged docking bays were turned into weapon bays and hardpoints. Whilst each weapon had its own team of artillerists, several kiloyan of communication and control cabling had been run through ducting on the ship back to the central command centre.
The ship on the screen abruptly exploded in a shower of blue and black, then imploded as the QG bombs overrode the explosive effects of the disruptors. The sentinel collapsed in on itself. Shaltok felt no qualms about not checking for survivors. They should have followed sterilization procedures correctly. Was its magnetic shielding sufficient to defend it from the dust?
“Sentinel destroyed, Captain.”
“None of any substance. Just radioactive dust.”
Will that be enough? thought Shaltok. He remembered all too well how the dust on the Shamasai planet had eaten into his armour and weapons. “Launch additional implosion combinations into the area to clear the dust.” And hope that my new ship has better shielding.
“Yes, Captain.” More bombs arced out into the expanding cloud of debris. Alarms sounded as the ship’s human sensors warned of quantum collapse, microscopic black holes forming and decaying.
“Where are the other ships in the system?”
“There are none on or around the planet, sir, as far as we can see. There are impact craters on the surface, lingering signs of a bombardment but no ships. It’s impossible to extract further data, even from the ship’s sensors, sir.”
A bombardment squadron destroyed? He thought of the sentinel. Perhaps the sentinel contaminated the squadron. The answer made sense. “Reissue the contamination protocols. No Ghar or Ghar ship is to return to a fleet or squadron without following the sterilization protocols to the letter.” A communication specialist saluted and scurried to do his bidding.
That the sterilization required being bathed in dangerous levels of radiation did not bother him in the slightest: the Ghar physiology and DNA was designed to cope with levels of radiation that would otherwise kill humans. He looked round at the humans plugged into the bridge’s interfaces. We may need them for this ship – for now – but we are considerably tougher than humanity, better. But they are working for us, with us. The thought made him shiver. I have overcome my horror, as have others. Do the helpful humans still deserve to die? He suppressed the errant thought, cleared his throat. “Scan the local space for any other ships or recent debris. Reach out to the Shamasai orbit.”
“Sir, the asteroid belt will cause numerous false positives, even for this ship’s sensors.”
“I know that! Just do it.” Shaltok glared at the Sensors Officer, remembered his face.
The officer blanched, saluted and turned back to his station, hitting a human operative over the shoulder as he did so. “You heard the Captain! Come on, do it.” At least he didn’t hit him over the head and upset the control helmet.
Shaltok waited, watched the screens as the ship’s enhanced sensors swept the system. False positives accrued by the tens, then hundreds. Each was brought up on a screen, evaluated with the efficiency of a Ghar’s combat senses, then discarded. We are good at evaluating threats. So why do the humans spread so prolifically? He thought of the humans stranded on his ship. They breed, but it is so random. And then they take years to develop. So inefficient. He watched them handle the bridge interfaces and translate and interact with the Ghar ship crew. But they are adaptable. That troubled him. Is that what Fartok is trying to teach his Outcasts? That Karg uses them in the way he does is disturbing to us all.
Shaltok was so deep in thought he did not hear the first time he was hailed. “Captain? Captain? We have debris plumes.”
“Main screen.” The main bridge screen refocused, zoomed in. There were plumes of debris being ejected into space from behind a large asteroid. “Can you confirm that is not natural?”
Sensors Officer stood to attention. “Confirmed, sir. The asteroid is far too small for volcanic activity and would have to be very strange indeed for any other chemical reaction to show in the way these plumes are acting. They are continuous.”
“Output from a manufacturing plant?”
“Or similar, sir. Not one of ours.”
“Is it dust from Shamasai? The planet?”
“Not as far as we can tell, sir.”
“Good. Navigation, Pilot, takes us closer. Weapons, be prepared for warning shots, do not destroy unless I specifically give the order to do so.” If this is a manufacturing base, then we can use it. If it’s a small ship, then we can bring it aboard, plunder it for slaves and parts. The thought led naturally to Fartok, once more. Is this the way he thought?
The massive ship slowly turned, then accelerated at a rate faster than any Ghar ship could manage, its GA bubble slicing through any particles in their path. It may be slow by human standards, but it is still faster than our vessels. The thought made him despondent. We should be better.
 GA = Gravitic Annihilation drive, the standard drive developed by the Isorians during the 6th Age and developed into a highly efficient sub-light drive interim between the 6th and 7th Ages. It is now used throughout Antarean space, though rather poorly by the Ghar who are not overly comfortable with its principles and operation, especially on a human ship such as City of Triumph/TOR 563.